Councilman Peter Brown, Astronaut Mike Fincke, Old Coach Jeff Van Gundy and New Coach Rick Adelman

Four days of hell for a councilman

Peter Brown is easily the richest member of City Council, taking luxurious summer vacations in France and...well, never, ever having to worry about money.

Until the week of October 29, that is. For much of that week — for a harrowing four days — Brown attempted to live on the salary of a Houston city worker.

Specifically, Houston health-department employee Belinda Rodriguez, who has $23.03 to spend each day on food, gas and clothing.

Insipid publicity stunt or inspiring man-of-the-people moment for the future mayoral candidate? You decide.

Hair Balls: What have you learned?

Brown: The main thing is we sort of intellectualize about what poverty is, but unless you've actually had some direct experience with it — like going shopping on a poverty budget, which I've done. I've tried to pick out some really cheap Halloween favors for kids — little small things like that...It takes a lot longer to shop because you're always comparison shopping. I went through three or four paper-towel possibilities before — I was shopping with Belinda — and she said, 'Well, this is the one you need to buy, this is the cheapest.' See, she knew. I didn't. So I learned about what it's like to worry about money all the time.

(Hair Balls scorecard: People read price tags? Insipid Publicity Stunt 1, Inspired Moment 0)

HB: So you think that for four or five days spending $23, you can actually say in good conscience that you have an idea what it's like to live at a poverty wage?

Brown: I would certainly say I have a much better idea. Four days is not a lot of time to really get down to the nitty-gritty of what it's like to live in poverty...We probably pay [some city employees] less than what a newspaper reporter makes.

HB: That could be, but I've lived on that wage, too.

Brown: I remember when I was in college and there was a time when my dad cut off my allowance and I had to go out and get a job.

(Scorecard: If only he'd stopped at "nitty-gritty." Insipid 2, Inspired 0)

HB: I'm trying to figure out whether [what you're doing] is patronizing and condescending and extremely presumptuous...What are you having for dinner this weekend? You going to stick with the $23?

Brown: Well, I made some stew this morning...I brought some stew meat and a lot of potatoes and some vegetables and canned food, and I made a really good stew which I'm also going to share with the Rodriguez family...I've learned some things. The diet of people living in poverty is a very unhealthy diet. That's one of the reasons we have a lot of obesity in society.

(Scorecard: You're poor...AND fat!! Insipid 3, Inspired 0)

HB: We know Ms. Rodriguez's salary. What's yours?

Brown: Well, my salary from the City of Houston is $52,000 a year.

HB: And how much from your [architectural business]?

Brown: I'm not sure. It's not a lot...

HB: And I imagine, then, you have a lot in savings?

Brown: Some, yeah. But I'm not going to get into my personal finances, if that's where you're going.

(Scorecard: Standing up for the right to privacy! Our final score: Insipid 3, Inspired 1. Thanks, councilman!)

Roommate Wanted

NASA put out the word recently that it has begun its search for the latest round of astronaut candidates.

This time around they'll be emphasizing something that hasn't been that great a factor in the past: the ability to get along with others.

These astronauts will not be flying two-week space shuttle missions; they'll be spending six months or more at the International Space Station (or beyond, if you're a NASA optimist). Not to mention the spot of bother NASA had with astronaut personalities recently.

Mike Fincke spent six months on the space station in 2004 and is going back up next year. (He'll be only the second American, out of the two dozen who've spent long stints on the ISS, to return.)

"Everyone in the world can get along for two weeks," he says of shuttle missions. "Plus, on the shuttle there are seven or so astronauts. On the space station you're there for longer and there are fewer people, so there can be feelings of isolation. If you can't stand each other, that's a recipe for disaster as far as getting the mission accomplished."

Fincke says NASA has adopted a lot of what some engineers or military types feel is "touchy-feely stuff" to make sure ISS astronauts aren't at each other's throats two months into a flight. It's mostly learning how to put up with other people's quirks and habits.

"It's not just whether someone snores at night or someone is brash and someone else is quiet," he says.

You learn, for instance — in the years of training with the crew that will accompany you — how to handle things like differing musical tastes.

In the CD era, music was precious (payloads cost $5,000 a pound, so there's little room for frivolities). Now, with MP3 players, astronauts can get new music as soon as it hits the Internet. If the Russian guy isn't into death-metal and you are, you pop in the earbuds.

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